War permeates the everyday: Artist Steve McQueen's soldier stamps

Imagine if a letter from, say, your mom, arrived and there on the stamp, where the profile of a president or the image of a flag should appear, you see a stamp showing the face of a soldier -- like St. Paul's Jacob J. Fairbanks, a 22-year-old Army specialist, husband and father -- who died fighting in Iraq. Then, when you go to pay a utility bill, you send it out affixed with a stamp showing another soldier killed in the war.

Artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen imagines such "intimate and public" interactions in his new project, Queen and Country, which creates Royal Mail postage stamps bearing the faces of British military fatalities. The UK's official "war artist," McQueen came up with the idea after a 2003 trip to Iraq:
An official set of Royal Mail stamps struck me as an intimate but distinguished way of highlighting the sacrifice of individuals in defence of our national ideals. The stamps would focus on individual experience without euphemism. It would form an intimate reflection of national loss that would involve the families of the dead and permeate the everyday – every household and every office.
McQueen is working with 137 military families, who have each selected a photo of their deceased family member to appear on a stamp, and he says the project won't be complete until all families have been offered the oppportunity, until the UK is no longer involved in the conflict, and until the Royal Mail makes the stamps official.

Presented in sheets within a cabinet, the stamps are on view at the Imperial War Museum in London. Roger Bacon, whose 34-year-old son, Maj. James Bacon, was killed in Iraq in 2005, describes his experience with the project.
You see the cabinet and you see the closed panels and you know your son is there with well over a hundred others. Your heart beats and your body tightens and then you pull the panel and there he is: the multiple images of his smiling face, the absolute assuredness in that face that everything is as it should be. Then the full force of loss hits home.

We see and remember Matthew every day and the possibility that all those images could become postage stamps and be seen everywhere on envelopes; that other people as they go about their daily lives could see our wonderful son and all those other wonderful sons and daughters on the stamps and realise that the ultimate sacrifice had been made in the name of their country; that through the stamps they would become a permanent collective memory – all of that for us would provide a fitting memorial to our hero and all the other heroes.
The artists says the work isn't pro- or anti-war. It "helps us reflect upon the many complex feelings we have about war... In the end, it's an art work – a tribute to the deceased and a reflection on the validity of war, the structure of power and notions of national identity."

McQueen and more than 11,000 supporters are petitioning the Royal Mail to create official stamps from the project.

Update: Jacob Fairbanks, according to local press reports, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound; he was six months into his second tour of duty in Iraq.

(Thanks, Elizabeth.)

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